Threatened by the mosquito-borne Zika virus in 2016, Florida residents felt more susceptible than others in the U.S. to get the virus, were more knowledgeable about it and were more likely to support taking community action against it. Floridians were nearly twice as likely as non-Floridians to say they took steps to protect themselves from Zika. Even so, fewer than half of Floridians said they actually did take preventive measures. The study is published recently in the journal Risk Analysis

Threatened by the mosquito-borne Zika virus in 2016, Florida residents felt more susceptible than others in the United States to get the virus, were more knowledgeable about it, and were more likely to support taking community action against it.

Floridians were nearly twice as likely as non-Floridians to say they took steps to protect themselves from Zika. Whether or not they felt personally susceptible to getting the virus, Floridians reported acting in greater numbers than their non-Florida counterparts. Even so, fewer than half of Floridians said they actually did take preventive measures.

A new study comparing the response to the Zika outbreak of adults in Florida with those living elsewhere in the United States suggests that more community-level education may be needed to trigger a broader response to a public health threat such as Zika.

'Unprecedented challenges to public health'

Most people who are infected with Zika do not show symptoms. For those who do, the symptoms are usually mild and gone within a week. Nonetheless, the researchers say that Zika virus infection poses "unprecedented challenges to public health" as the first mosquito-borne illness that causes birth defects in infants through perinatal transmission and as the first mosquito-borne illness to be sexually transmitted.

Floridians more active against Zika

In a number of ways, the study found that Floridians were more informed about Zika, more approving of control measures, and more active in taking steps to protect themselves:

  1. Floridians were more than twice as likely as non-Floridians to express at least moderate feelings of susceptibility or being at risk of infection by Zika in the next six months (37% vs. 16%);
  2. Floridians were slightly more likely than non-Floridians to know that Zika is transmitted by mosquitoes (84% vs. 82%) and by sexual transmission (66% vs. 61%) and to know that coughing and sneezing is not a means of transmission (67% vs. 64%);
  3. Floridians were more likely than non-Floridians to know that Zika doesn't always produce noticeable symptoms (55% vs. 50%) and to know that a severe birth defect was a consequence for babies born to infected mothers (76% vs. 71%);
  4. Floridians were more supportive than non-Floridians of aerial spraying (74% vs. 67%), ground spraying (87% vs. 80%) and using genetically modified mosquitoes to control Zika (62% vs. 58%);
  5. Floridians were almost twice as likely as non-Floridians (45% vs. 26%) to say that they had taken steps in the prior three months to protect themselves from Zika;
  6. More Floridians who felt at risk of Zika reported taking action to protect themselves than non-Floridians who felt at risk (58% vs. 41%). And a greater number of Floridians reported taking action than non-Floridians despite not feeling susceptible (38% vs. 22%).

Wider response needed to Zika virus

"Many people may not have expected the symptoms to be personally harmful, and this might have reduced the response to Zika," said co-author Dan Romer. "But people need to know how important it is to get rid of standing water, put up screens, and use insect repellent — the steps necessary to combat the ability of mosquitoes to transmit the infection. You need a larger community response to prevent the spread of a new transmissible infection like Zika."

The Annenberg Public Policy Center was established in 1993 to educate the public and policymakers about the media's role in advancing public understanding of political, health, and science issues at the local, state and federal levels.